U.K. TV Industry to Discuss Role of Cameras in Courts at Edinburgh Festival

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South Africa's Oscar Pistorius in Court surrounded by cameras

Networks will for the first time get pooled video footage from the Court of Appeal starting this fall after years of pushing for access.

EDINBURGH – U.K. TV networks will get their first chance to show English court room video footage starting this fall in a limited trial of cameras in courts.

In the U.S., the O.J. Simpson trial in the California state court was shown on TV, and many other state courts have also allowed cameras. And in South Africa, the Oscar Pistorius case has recently caused a media circus. But media interest and coverage in the U.K. are expected to be much more low-key, according to industry experts.

Photography has been banned from English court rooms since 1925, while Scotland has allowed them in some cases. Film and video cameras were later added to the ban in England. But last year, the British government outlined plans to allow cameras at some court proceedings. The Ministry of Justice later confirmed that TV cameras could start covering cases at the Court of Appeal starting in October.

BSkyB's Sky News, ITN and other TV news organizations have long pushed for the change, arguing that trial coverage on TV would boost people's understanding of the judicial process.

But critics have warned that the presence of TV cameras could affect court room proceedings and behavior by witnesses, jurors and others.

With change coming this fall, the hotly debated issue will be one of the topics of discussion at this week's Edinburgh International Television Festival, which kicks off Thursday.

In a Friday session entitled "Court on Camera," legal and TV experts will debate the issue. "From O.J. to Pistorius, Pussy Riot to The Hague, we’ve grown used to seeing the law in action in almost every other country in the world," the description of the session says. "So when will the TV news show real faces rather than cartoonish sketches? When will we witness history-changing verdicts live?" 

The producers of the session are Louise Hammersley, senior lawyer at production firm Shed Media, which is controlled by Warner Bros., Meredith Chambers, chief creative officer at Shed production label Twenty Twenty and Natalie McArdle, assistant producer, factual development at Twenty Twenty.

ITV News host Alastair Stewart will play judge and quiz panelists, including John Battle, head of compliance at news organization ITN, about the arguments for and against cameras in court.

"It has been a very long time that we have been pushing hard for this," said Sky News associate editor Simon Bucks, one of the long-time proponents of cameras in court here. The news channel is operated by pay TV giant BSkyB, in which Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox owns a 39 percent stake.

What kind of coverage does he expect? "In the Court of Appeal, you see only judges and lawyers, so it will be quite minimalist with arcane legal arguments most of the time," he explained. "So, we won't do gavel-to-gavel coverage. but where it is of interest to the public, we could possibly show more."

Sky News, ITN, the BBC and the Press Association have pooled resources in a joint venture to pay for the cameras that will be installed in court and that will provide a feed for all networks involved. The partners haven't disclosed the cost of the equipment and its installation.

Asked why British courts didn't follow the example of other countries and allow cameras in courts years ago, Stewart told THR: "We tread cautiously in the U.K. We don't rush things. For me, one of the crucial tipping points was when we got cameras into the legislature - first the House of Lords and eventually the House of Commons."

He said the TV industry soon argued that if cameras are allowed where laws are passed, they should also be allowed were people who break them are tried. "There hasn't been a case like O.J. or Pistorius that was a tipping point here," he explained. "It has been an evolutionary argument."

Echoed Chambers: "The industry has slowly introduced the idea in England. This is the perfect time to look at the big change that is coming down - a change that many people want and others don't."

Discussing t the biggest concern people have here, he said: "The worry is what the news judgments will be and whether the media may make it too sensationalistic."

Said Stewart: "There can be the danger of turning court proceedings into high drama, and I think America has made that mistake. We fully respect that concern, but we don't plan such things here. It's a different culture."

Experts say that the Court of Appeal is overseen by very experienced judges, further reducing the risk of any negative effects of TV cameras.

"There are discussions of legal arguments and judgments, not other substantive issues," explained Hammersley. "And the same safeguards apply that are in place in the legal system already. For example, rape victim are always anonymous. Plus, you have an experienced judge who manages the proceedings. So, it's justice, then the broadcast of justice."

The BBC filmed an open justice experiment in 1992, but then nothing moved on the front of cameras in U.K. courts for years. Earlier this year though, Channel 4 aired a two-hour documentary by Nick Holt called The Murder Trial about the case of a Scottish man accused of killing his wife. With Scottish judges allowed to give permission for cameras, the documentary marked only the second time cameras filmed a U.K. murder trial.

"My experience was that not one witness or judge or lawyer behaved adversely because of the cameras in court," said Holt who explained that his team put up five small remote-controlled cameras in court. "Everyone involved in the case we filmed behaved themselves, and it didn't adversely affect the trial or the administration of justice in any way."

The Court of Appeal system is set up to work in a similar way, with the judge remaining in control. "If the court room becomes unruly, then it is the judge's responsibility to address that. He had the option to stop filming [for the documentary]. That didn't happen."

Stewart also called suggestions that cameras could affect the outcome of the judicial process totally unsustainable."

"There are fears of a bit of a melee, a circus because there are umpteenth cameras, umpteenth still photographers. It becomes a press pack," Holt said pointing to the Pistorius case in Souuth Africa. "That is nowhere near what would happen in the U.K. There will only be one feed of cameras, and everybody would take the feed from that."

Media coverage during a British trial also has to be fair, accurate and contemporaneous, so, TV networks or pundits won't make predictions of what will happen in a case.

"The notion of freedom of speech is utterly crucial in the U.S. system," added Stewart. "Not in ours. Here, the right of the individual is paramount."
Observers predict that if the cameras work out in the Court of Appeal, they may also slowly be introduced to additional English courts over time.

"The idea is we'll do that for a while, and if successful, we hope to televise very small parts of other cases," said Bucks. "We will start showing pooled coverage of hearings in the Court of Appeal from October and very much hope that it won’t be long before we can also show some parts of Crown Court trials."

Will Britain ever see a full trial live on TV? "If ever, it is years and years away," predicted Chambers."There is not much public demand for that. We don't look at other countries' use and are jealous [that we can't watch full trials]. And there is more concern about the media circus in those cases. And we are still a long way off from even average trials."

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai